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Leafs playing out string with purpose Add to ...

jblair@globeandmail.com

Not bad - and, yes, about the best you can hope for with the Toronto Maple Leafs: that they continue to be purposeful in these meaningless last dozen games of the 2009-10 season.

It was almost nonchalant the way John Mitchell turned away from New Jersey Devils goaltender Yann Danis after tucking a backhand behind him for the Leafs' third goal in as many shots during a 2-1 shootout win, raising the Leafs' March record to 6-3-1.

Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin also scored in the shootout while Jean-Sébastien Giguère turned aside Patrik Elias on the Devils' second shot after the teams played to a cagey 1-1 tie through regulation time and the five-minute overtime period.

Last year at this time, the town was all a-twitter over Mikhail Grabovski's apparent emergence - the first Maple Leafs rookie to score 20 goals since Sergei Berezin, don't you know? - while trying to figure out what the hell it meant that the likes of Alexei Ponikarovsky, Ian White and Matt Stajan were having, um, what passed for career years.

Shoot, even the human black cloud, Jason Blake, appeared to be interested more often than not. And the only time the ghost of Curtis Joseph resurfaces is when he appears on the Air Canada Centre scoreboard to do one of those insipid "1-2-3" countdowns for crowd noise.

(Thankfully, there is no talk this year of 'tanking' to get the first choice overall because . . . well. You know.)

But there is a difference to this playing out the string, though, in that it really does seem as if general manager Brian Burke and head coach Ron Wilson have - how to put this delicately - finally thrown out the trash. (See: Anybody not named Grabovski in paragraph above.)

Even on the rare occasions last season when things went well, it was hard not to get the impression that on most nights Wilson and his staff were holding their noses when they looked down the bench and wondered what the hell it all meant.

Wilson all but winced when Blake scored a goal.

The Leafs are still largely a bunch of third-liners - Kessel is a legitimate first-line sniper and I don't think it's doing a disservice to Tyler Bozak or Kulemin to say they are not yet bona-fide first-line forwards, at least not until Bozak adds some weight - but at least Wilson and Burke consider them "their" second or third liners.

Still, the Devils' Zach Parise - who scored in the shootout but was otherwise occupied all night by and with Bozak - said there's enough in that trio to make them a handful.

"You look at the numbers and they pretty much get all their scoring from the top (first line)," said Parise, who was playing his third game in four nights. "They're the kind of line you have to be smart against. You really can't take too many chances against them."

The Leafs played an intelligent, mature game last night against the Devils until Colton Orr and Kulemin took back-to-back boneheaded minors that left the Leafs short-handed for four minutes half-way through the second period.

There is one more thing that Wilson and Burke need to do: find another tough-guy with at least some measure of talent so they can tie the can to Colton, who mugged a Devils player as he tried to go off on a line change. He is an unnecessary sideshow.

Four seconds after Orr stepped back out, Kulemin knocked over another Devils player from behind to take a boarding penalty - probably not a good idea considering the sensitivity of officials these days - and while the Devils didn't score in those four minutes, they did even the score at 15:46 on David Clarkson's goal as the Devils built on a territorial edge given them by Orr and Kulemin.

Until then, the Leafs were models of economy and composure. Clarkson tried to lure Dion Phaneuf into a scrap six minutes into the second, but Phaneuf shooed him away and all Clarkson managed to get out of it was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

The Leafs had a strong first period. Almost to a man, they took care of the puck and moved with purpose while in the neutral zone and they were justifiably rewarded with a 1-0 first-period lead when Kessel jumped on a fat rebound off Danis.

Danis, starting in goal because head coach Jacques Lemaire gave Martin Brodeur the night off, was tested by a hard shot from Phaneuf, who had jumped into the play.

"They don't score a lot of goals, but tonight they played hard shift to shift," Lemaire said of the Leafs.

This was the fourth consecutive game in which a member of the Leafs nominal first line - Bozak, Kulemin and Kessel - opened the scoring.

It seems different this season, that's all.

For whatever the reason, it seems as if there's a purpose and in this city at this time, it will have to do.

****

GAMESHEET

Notes The Maple Leafs signed defenceman Jesse Blacker to a standard three-year entry level contract and the 18-year-old will join the AHL's Toronto Marlies today. A second-round choice in 2009 and the 58th overall selection, Blacker had 33 points and 74 penalty minutes in 57 games, 48 of them with the Owen Sound Attack, who acquired him from the Windsor Spitfires nine games into the OHL season. Blacker could make his debut this weekend when the Marlies play the Hamilton Bulldogs tomorrow at Ricoh Coliseum . . . the Habs haven't played since Tuesday, when they beat the New York Rangers 3-1.

Next game Montreal Canadiens at Maple Leafs Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

TV CBC Hockey Night In Canada

Jeff Blair

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